Fifth Annual Guns N’ Hoses Chili Cook-off

We certainly couldn’t have asked for better weather on Saturday: cool and crisp with bright, clear skies. Perfect weather for, say, a chili cook-off? Yes, please! Local radio personalities Corey Deitz and Jay Hamilton were happy to oblige, serving up their fifth annual Guns N’ Hoses Chili Cook-off at the Clear Channel Metroplex in Little Rock. I’ve been a longtime listener to Corey and Jay’s morning show on 100.3 The Edge, but this was the first year I’d managed to make it to the cook-off. We came hungry and didn’t leave disappointed, as over 50 teams competed for several titles including spiciest chili, best use of candy, best use of pumpkin as an ingredient and best name – the award for “people who can’t win an award based on chili.” The cook-off was held to benefit the September Fund, a charity that provides scholarships to the children of police, fire, and EMT workers. The fund was set up to commemorate the rescue workers who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

Right off the bat, the festive spirit of Halloween (not to mention the wonderful smell of 50 pots of chili cooking) was evident in the air around us. Folks were hamming it up at their chili booths, calling to passers-by like carnival barkers. Our friend EE-Gore here (quote: “Have you seen my brother, Al?”) was one of many people dressed up for the occasion, and these folks, coupled with the mechanical bull, beer tent, and rock music coming from the rear of the festival really gave a fun vibe to the whole event. We arrived right as everyone started serving, and the chili was hot and fresh. This was a good thing, because by the time my sister and brother-in-law showed up an hour and a half later, some of the chili was running out, and what was left was beginning to get a little bit burnt tasting. Right at the start, though, everything was great — and we were definitely ready to eat.

One of the first chilis we tried (and one of our favorites) was the offering from the Saline County S.W.A.T. unit. They advertised it as “Marie LeVeau’s Voodoo Swamp Chili,” and it definitely had the fishy twang of crawfish meat all through it. We were pleasantly surprised at how well the flavor worked with chili and the booth was one of the liveliest at the event. Right next to them was our favorite of the professional attempts: Rambler Grill in Rose Bud’s rich, meaty chili, served with a thin slice of cornbread and some corn salsa. We were off to a delicious start.

Moving on down the row of booths, we ran into fellow Arkansas food-blogger Chet Roberson of the Knife Fight Food Blog, dressed like a cross between Lars Ulrich and Richard Simmons. His chili was good, but we were most impressed with the excellent cheese straws he was serving up with it. Pictured next to him is the proprietor of the Fat Boy Mafia booth. Their chili was a little on the bland side, but we enjoyed the cheese and sour cream toppings.

Everybody was gorging themselves, but I don’t think anybody at the whole affair enjoyed themselves as much as this Great Dane, seen here getting his chili on. Who knew such a large dog could have such a delicate touch getting chili out of a 2 oz. souffle cup with his tongue? Maybe best not to think about that too much.  We had what the dog was having, though, a rich and piquant chili from Little Rock MEMS – one of our favorite chilis of the day.

Of course, we had to head over to sample the chili at the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers booth – and I’ve got to say that while I love what the Freethinkers stand for…their chili was just too dadgum hot. We had some good, spicy chili (including category winner Sherwood Police Dept.), but this was so hot it killed any flavor that might have been present in the chili. We took a break after this one, and even though I swore going in that I wasn’t paying $3 for a can of Coors Light…I went over to the beer tent and did exactly that. Spicy was done right at the aforementioned Sherwood PD stand, and also with John and Amanda Heringer’s “Hell from Habanero” chili, which despite its slightly scary name was just the right amount of hot with a rich, thick consistency. Their serving it up with some good, fresh tasting pico de gallo didn’t hurt a bit either.

All-in-all, we’d like to thank Corey and Jay for giving us such a fun time (for cheap – $5 entry fees are nice). They raised $6,735 for the September Fund, and I think everyone involved had a pretty good time of it. We definitely tried some interesting chili (including one offering that used Red Hots candies), and we saw some very colorful people. I hope that next year will be even more successful – we can’t wait to get there and pig out again. Happy cooking!

More pictures available here. Feel free to “like” us on Facebook if you are so inclined!


A Piece of Southern History: the Moon Pie

When folks talk about the South, things usually go one of two ways: either a sort of Scarlet O’Hara fantasy of simpler antebellum times or jokes about rednecks, hillbillies, and poor folks in general. Strangely enough, both of those ideas are summed up by a treat that is very much identified with the South: the Moon Pie, and there’s no better authority on the sweet than David Magee’s book Moon Pie: Biography of an Out-of-this-World Snack. Magee’s book is a slim, easy-reading volume that is nonetheless packed with information about the whimsical Moon Pie.

It’s a subject about which Magee is passionate, and he isn’t alone: Moon Pie testimonials are peppered throughout the book as people recall the first time they ate the “Original Marshmallow Sandwich.” As the story of the Moon Pie progresses, it becomes clear that there’s something a bit different about the Moon Pie, namely that it is still produced by the same bakery that invented the thing back in 1929. In this day and age of huge conglomerates that own multiple brand names, there’s only one Moon Pie, and those pies are the sole product of family owned Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga Tennessee. Originally a bakery formed by the Mountain City Flour Mill as a way to use flour that couldn’t be sold in stores, the Chattanooga Bakery has spent the last eight decades creating a snack that has become a symbol of the South itself.

Of course, no book about Moon Pies could be written without mentioning Royal Crown Cola, and Magee does a fine job of describing how folks with limited funds looking for the best deal possible were drawn to the portion size of both items (RC Cola in those days was 4 ounces more than Coca-Cola) as well as their price: one nickel a piece. The Moon Pie/RC Cola phenomenon is truly a populist pairing, “strengthened by a hit country song released by Big Bill Lister in 1951 titled ‘Gimme an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.” Chattanooga Bakery has never taken advantage of this co-branding (unlike that other Southern mixture, Ro-Tel and Velveeta), but if you say Moon Pie in the South, somebody is almost guaranteed to mention RC Cola at some point, even though the soda isn’t nearly as easily found these days (having been supplanted as the “Southern” soda for the most part by Mt. Dew.)

Chattanooga Bakery’s hard work and perseverance have paid off with a few lucky breaks, the first being Arkansas’ own Sam Walton taking an interest in the product after a Wal-Mart associate in Alabama mentioned customer complaints about the hit-or-miss availability – there are certainly worse things that could happen to a product than getting noticed personally by the CEO of the largest retail company in the world. The Moon Pie has also become a popular item to toss from Mardi Gras floats, especially in Mobile, Alabama, due to its combination of being soft, round (and delicious). The nostalgia factor of the marshmallow sandwich has helped out as well, with the Cracker Barrel chain carrying a “throwback” version of the Moon Pie in its “country stores” (see right). The throwback boxes use the old “Lookout” brand that the Chattanooga Bakery formerly ran all its products under, and remain a pretty inexpensive treat.

Magee’s love letter to the Moon Pie was an enjoyable read – I found myself craving one of the pies after I had made it about halfway through. Chattanooga Bakery has kept their product inexpensive and tasty for generations, without advertising, without selling out to large conglomerates, and without compromising quality. It’s truly a snack cake that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether you eat it out of the package, microwave it, or put them in the freezer to harden the marshmallow center (one of my personal favorites). It was enjoyable to learn a bit about a piece of my Southern upbringing, and here’s hoping there will be 80 more years of Moon Pies!

Spinach Artichoke Dip

It’s getting near the holiday season again, and it’s always good to have a few easy recipes that can be taken to various parties and pot-lucks. I’ve found that nothing is better than knowing how to make a good dip or two, and spinach artichoke dip is not only an enormous hit with most folks, it’s also very easy to make. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 sourdough bread bowl. Not to be all “Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade” here, but just buy one from the bakery.  Insert your knife into the bread at about a 45-degree angle and cut in a circle to make the bowl.
  • 1 cup spinach. Use frozen and thaw it out, or blanch your own. To blanch, boil your spinach leaves for 30-45 seconds, then dip them out and put them immediately into a bowl of ice water. Gently squeeze out the excess moisture. In either case, frozen or blanched, chop it up finely.
  • 2 jars of marinated artichoke hearts, drained and rinsed. You can, of course, use frozen, or you can make your own – but that process is an entire post of its own.
  • One package of cream cheese.
  • 1/4 cup sour cream.
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise. If you’d like to make your own, follow our instructions for aioli using regular canola oil instead of garlic oil. By all means, though, use the kind in a jar.
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic puree or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder.
  • 2 tablespoons chopped shallots or 1 tablespoon onion powder.
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (to taste).
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Soften your cream cheese in the microwave for a few seconds, then mix everything up in a bowl until smooth. The dip can go into a covered dish until ready to serve. Serve in the bread bowl with corn chips, crackers, or crudites. Yes, it’s that easy! Happy cooking!

Gratin Jurassien, or How I Learned to Worry Too Much and Fail Julia Child

Julia Child is a touchstone to most American cooks – the lady who brought French cooking techniques into American homes via her masterpiece Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She was good enough to create a PBS program called The French Chef despite being neither French nor a chef. I’ve been making recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking here and there, and I’ve always been impressed with how Julia and her partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle made their recipes accessible to the home cook. I will admit, though, that sometimes they defeat my attempts at recreating their dishes.

Tonight’s dish is Gratin Jurassien, a potato dish made with Swiss cheese and cream, baked at low heat until the potatoes absorb the cream and brown lightly. Julia tells us up front: “you must never let the cream come quite to the simmer during the baking; thus it will not curdle.” Well, okay, Julia, we’ll do our best.

Here’s how you do it. Or should I say, here’s how you try to do it. Take a pan and smear it with a tablespoon of butter. Layer thinly sliced potatoes in said pan. A good way of making those thin slices is to slice them on your hand grater – that side of it that has the one cutting edge you never use? Use it right here. Cover that layer of potatoes with salt, pepper, dots of more butter and grated Swiss cheese. So far so good, right? I thought so, having seen Julia do her potatoes, butter, and cheese the exact same way on The French Chef.

Keep alternating layers of potatoes, salt, pepper, and cheese. Julia doesn’t really tell you when to stop, but I figured halfway up the side of the pan was sufficient for me. Finish with a sprinkle of cheese and “dots of butter.” I admit, I finished with a layer of potatoes and only remembered the last sprinkle of cheese about 5 minutes after I put the dish in the oven. Perhaps I should have read the intro to Mastering the Art of French Cooking a bit better, because Julia is pretty adamant about reading and learning an entire recipe in advance of trying it. That is probably warning sign number one.

Julia asks us to place our pan on the stove-top and bring our dish “slowly almost to the simmer.” I admit, I’m pretty much a failed line cook turned amateur house cook, so perhaps I missed the lesson on the “almost simmer.” I kept this thing on medium-low heat and when I saw little bubbles starting I cut the heat down. If there’s a better way to accomplish this, please tell me in the comments section so I can get smarter.

Julia tells us, “the gratin is done when the potatoes are tender and have absorbed the cream, and the top is lightly browned.” She also says that 1 to 1 and 1/4 hours of cooking time is enough to bring the dish to perfection. During this time, we’re to be busy “regulating oven heat,” so as to never let this concoction bubble in order to make it be creamy and good. Well, this is the step in which I found my failing. I don’t exactly know how. I kept my heat regulated, and after 45 minutes of non-bubbling baking, my cream mixture looked curdled. After another 3o minutes, it was still soupy looking and there was definite cream separation. Perhaps I had not drained my potatoes enough, and they had too much moisture for the dish. Perhaps I had added too much butter (although I maintain that I kept the butter within recipe guidelines). Perhaps I had been too cautious in my fear of the mixture bubbling and the slow cooking had curdled the cream anyway. I’m really not sure, but the fact is: the cream was a bit curdled when I pulled the dish from the oven.

Keep in mind, “curdled” in this case doesn’t exactly mean the same thing as it does when you keep a quart of milk in the fridge too long. The sauce in this dish isn’t ruined in flavor at all, but the texture is completely wrong. The dish is still edible, but instead of a smooth, rich sauce that the potatoes absorb, we were left with a slightly separated sauce, that while rich and tasty wasn’t at all what one expects when eating this dish. It was, in fact, a yummy dish, and the potatoes were just as tender and good and Julia said they should be.  Jess and I were both happy with the flavor, but the fact that the sauce was partially oily and partially creamy instead of creamy all the way through makes this a failure in my eyes. Certainly, a failure that results in something that is still edible is better than a burnt mess, but this is certainly something that needs further work to succeed.

Being unsatisfied with your dishes and never settling for that feeling is part of becoming a good cook. This was a first try, and although I can take a lot from it that went right, it remains a disappointment. But there are always other meals, and each one provides a chance to try again and get it right. I don’t think Julia would have it any other way. Happy cooking!

Love that Cornbread, part 1: Skillet Cornbread

Cornbread is one of those things I take for granted about living in Arkansas. Growing up here, I just assumed that everybody ate the stuff, only to find out that many people had never even heard of the it; or worse, they put sugar in it. Let me get it out of the way right now: we have a name for that sort of thing in Arkansas; we call it cake. As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that there are a few different ways of making cornbread, but my favorite is still cornbread the way my mama made it – in a cast iron skillet.

My mother taught me how to make cornbread when I was really young. Some of my earliest memories are licking the bowl after she mixed up the batter (you might find this strange, then again, you might find you like it if you tried it). Her recipe was simple, and the result was a cornbread that had a delicious crunchy crust but was moist and rich in the middle. It’s perfect with purple hull peas, stew, greens – or by itself holding up a pat of melting butter.

To make my mama’s cornbread, you’ll need the following ingredients:

  • 2 cups of white cornmeal. You can get the kind that already has leavening in it, or you can add 1/2 teaspoon baking powder to the regular kind.
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 cup or so of buttermilk. I say “or so” because making cornbread has always been more about the consistency of the batter rather than adhering to strict measurements. Your goal is a batter that pours easily but isn’t soupy. It should have the consistency of good pancake batter – because really, cornbread made this way IS a type of “pancake.”
  • Pinch of salt
  • Splash of vegetable or canola oil.
  • 1-2 teaspoons shortening.
  • Optional: jalapenos, onions, cheese.

Mix your ingredients (except the shortening) with a wire whisk or fork until well blended. Get out your cast iron skillet (you MUST have at least one cast iron skillet in order to cook Southern food) and melt your shortening, heating until it shimmers. Turn to medium-high heat and pour your batter in – this will “fry” the cornbread a little bit and result in a crispy, golden-brown crust. Watch for small bubbles to start forming around the edges of the cornbread; when this happens, put the skillet into a 350 degree oven and bake until the middle is set and the top is browned. Invert your skillet over a plate, and serve.

Cornbread is pretty good by itself – some folks put ground beef into it along with their peppers, onions, and cheese and call it “Mexican” cornbread. I’ve always thought that ground beef made the end result a little greasy, and cheese can interfere with the cornbread rising correctly while baking. Peppers and onions are an excellent addition, though, just soften them up in a bit of oil before you cook add them to the batter.  My favorite way to eat cornbread is with peas:

Cornbread is easy to make and there’s not many dishes more Southern. Skillet cornbread like this isn’t the only type of cornbread made here in the South, though, and I’ll be posting another way of making it at a future date. Until then, happy cooking!

Basic Hummus

Hummus, the chickpea puree spiked with tahini, garlic, and olive oil, might be one of the world’s most perfect foods. It works as a snack, a side dish, an appetizer, or as a spread to put on sandwiches and wraps. We love to eat it, but although we can get good hummus at our favorite local Mediterranean place, we have always been disappointed by the hummus sold at the supermarket; and by disappointed I mean a range of emotions that run from slightly bummed out to just downright pissed off. Delicious, fresh-tasting hummus is incredibly simple to make at home, and since we started making our own we haven’t even looked at the tubs of pseudo-hummus sold at the grocer’s. This is more than just bean dip, folks, and once you realize how easy it is to make it, you might find you crave it often.

To make your own hummus, you’ll need the following things:

  • Chickpeas. Canned chickpeas are just fine for making hummus quickly, and around here, they are much easier to find than dried.
  • Tahini (see picture right). This is a roasted sesame seed paste; like peanut butter, but with sesame seeds instead of peanuts. Some people actually do substitute peanut butter for tahini, but we don’t recommend it. The earthy flavor that the tahini provides is very important for your final dish, and peanut butter really doesn’t cut it. It’s available at most supermarkets, but we’ve found that it’s much more cost effective to buy it at a local Middle Eastern Grocery.
  • Garlic. One to two cloves according to your taste. Pre-minced is fine, it just doesn’t have quite the well-rounded flavor of fresh.
  • Lemon juice. Again, bottled is fine, but fresh-squeezed is better.
  • Olive Oil. Get a decent quality oil, your taste buds will thank you.
  • A blender. What, you didn’t think we were going to mash all this stuff together by hand, did you?

Open your can of chickpeas and reserve the juice in a bowl. Put your chickpeas, garlic, one teaspoon (or more to taste) tahini, 1/8-1/4 cup of olive oil, two tablespoons of lemon juice (again, to taste), a healthy pinch of salt, and two tablespoons of the reserved chickpea liquid into a blender. Blend until smooth. If you’d like a thinner hummus, use more of the reserved liquid and blend until you’ve reached your desired consistency. It’s easy to adjust the flavors, just add more lemon, garlic, salt, or tahini as desired and taste often. Eat immediately, or chill for a bit in the fridge to let the flavors mingle. Enjoy!

Serving suggestion: hummus topped with olive oil and red pepper, lamb shoulder chop, fresh salad with Gorgonzola dressing, warm toasted pita. Happy cooking!

Braised Oxtail and Mushroom Tartine

If you haven’t had a chance to read Ad Hoc at Home by Chef Thomas Keller, it’s definitely worth a look. The recipes come from Ad Hoc, a Keller restaurant based on creating “family style” meals rather than the high brow fare found at Keller’s legendary French Laundry and Per SeAd Hoc at Home is excellent for the home cook, and we’ve enjoyed making several things from the book, including Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken, the chocolate chip cookies, and our favorite: Braised Oxtail and Mushroom Tartine.  This dish is savory and good, and although the cooking time is a bit long, it’s very easy to prepare.  We’ve made this a few times, and although I’ve modified the recipe, it’s always turned out delicious.

To make this, you’ll need:

  • Some Oxtails (roughly two large pieces per person eating)
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Oil (Keller says canola; I agree)
  • Mushrooms (about a cup per person eating). The original recipe calls for oyster mushrooms, and they go with the meat excellently. I’ve also used shiitakes, and although they have a lighter, more delicate flavor, they’re also good. The baby portobellos available now would probably work just fine, or use plain old white mushrooms if that’s all you can find.
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Beef stock. Make your own…well, ok, you don’t HAVE to make your own, but if you use the store bought kind, get a low salt version. You’re going to reduce this liquid a great deal, and you don’t want things to get too salty.
  • 1-2 tablespoons minced shallots. Shallots are best, but the dish doesn’t suffer from substituting diced yellow onion.
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped thyme. If you have to use dried, only use half as much.
  • Bread. Keller calls for rosemary ciabatta or “other thick flat bread;” I’ve used regular ciabatta as well as toasted sourdough. Pick a bread you like that has a enough strength to make an open faced sandwich.
  • Some thinly sliced onion (optional, but totally worth it).

Heat some of the canola oil in a skillet. Salt and pepper the oxtails and brown them in the oil, about 5-7 minutes per side. You want to get a good brown color:

After browning, put the oxtails on a cooling rack and pour the used oil out of the pan. Put the oxtails back in and pour in some of your beef stock. Chef Keller says that enough to cover about half the oxtails is sufficient, but every time I’ve made this, I’ve had to add more liquid about half to three quarters of the way through – so make sure you have some stock in reserve. Cover your pan and put it into a 400 degree oven for 2 and half to 3 hours.  Keep an eye on them, and if your liquid is getting dry, add a bit of your reserved stock.  Once they’re tender, take them out and put them on your cooling rack. Let them rest for half an hour.  Save the liquid they cooked in, and help yourself to something nice from the fridge:

Once the tails have had a nice rest, remove the meat from the center bone. Be careful with this task, because oxtails have a good bit of surrounding fat and connective tissue, and you really don’t want that stuff in your final product. Put your meat in a bowl and set aside. It’s mushroom time.

Heat some canola in a skillet and brown your mushrooms. Add your shallots and cook until the shallots get soft – you don’t want to burn the shallots, so you may want to reduce your heat a bit at this point. Add your butter and cook until the mushroom liquid has cooked off and everything gets nice and coated with butter. Stir your meat back in, and add your reserved liquid. Reduce until the liquid has the consistency of a thick sauce.  Toast your bread, and serve.

This is a version we made with shiitake mushrooms and served over ciabatta rolls with squash fries. It tastes like the richest, best open-faced roast beef sandwich you’ve ever had.

This is a version made with oyster mushrooms, served over sourdough toast. The mixture is pretty much good any way you like it, and a good way to make a cut of meat that most people around here often overlook. Happy cooking!